The Missing Piece in Leadership Development


A year ago, Education Pioneers made the courageous decision to depart from our conventional alumni engagement strategy to an innovative network strategy.  Our new direction employs tactics that build relationships amongst our alumni rather than to our institution.  This reorientation required us to challenge our assumptions about how we develop education leaders capabale of transforming education in the 21st century.

Our fellows hail from the country's most selective business, education, policy, and law graduate programs that have turned leadership development into a rich social science, but have also built their programs around the navigation of traditional hierarchies and the common scenarios of an institution.  In order to build a professional network of leaders that work across agencies, Education Pioneers is revamping our curriculum to include components that teach emerging leaders how to turn to one another to accelerate change in the field.

As Education Pioneers' director of network strategy, I reviewed academic literature and boiled the salient findings down to five network leadership competencies that we're weaving into our curricula at Education Pioneers.

Read on for a look at practices that you can use to advance your career and deepen your impact as a professional.

Keep your social bank account balanced.

The notion of social capital is not a new one, but it continues to be central to how successful leaders manage relationships.  In essence, social capital is the currency of relationships that remains fluid through trust, expectation, and obligation. We all have that person in our life who is quick to ask for favors (withdrawals) but not so quick to return them (deposits). Just as a lender would see it, eventually we anticipate a lack of reciprocation and are less willing to provide help in this one-way relationship.  At the individual level, if you work to understand this professional milieu and the people who populate it, you'll be better positioned to keep your social capital in balance. You'll know when and from whom to ask for a favor, when to pony up (even if it's not convenient), and when a helpful gesture will have an outsized effect. Cultivating a culture where this understanding is widespread makes for a group of people who are able to accomplish more than a group that does not and is essential for team building.

Commit not-so-random acts of kindness.

Instead of waiting for opportunities to present themselves, be aware of social dynamics, your position in social situations, and think of others in your dealings to make connections that have no immediate benefit to you. Consider this an investment in colleagues who are stuck on a problem or in a tight spot professionally that they'll appreciate, remember, and eventually return when you're in need.  The trick here is to be genuine and know your limitations.  Blatantly generating a feeling of obligation will cause others to distance themselves instead of creating a closer tie. And, often, it's someone you know who can help rather than yourself and a simple introduction can be your greatest assistance.  Again, all of this depends on knowing the dynamics at play around you.

Ask, "How are you?" and mean it.

While you may interact with lots of people in your job, all of us work with a smaller number of people on a regular basis whether they're direct reports, peers, or managers.  This smaller group that surrounds you is important in a lot of ways.  Namely, they are the ones who help you get your day-to-day tasks done successfully.  Knowing this, high performing leaders build a tightly-knit, trust-based network to support role clarity and task completion in addition to cultivating a sparse, diverse network to gain organizational knowledge and resources. If you have consistent expectations for performance, understand organization-specific knowledge, and know your position relative to others, you've zeroed in on the essential elements for upward mobility. If you don't, it's your job to advocate for clarity. As a manager, you are doing a tremendous favor for your reports and their productivity by providing this context.

Dwell in holes.

The field of education is as heavily siloed as the Nebraska plains. People in different departments, geographical sites, or even completely different organizations focus on their own business and rarely communicate, causing duplication of efforts and innovations to be trapped in pockets.  By extension, the landscape offers spaces between the siloes and opportunities to connect them.  These spaces are called "structural holes" by social network theorists. While most leaders focus on their siloes, network-minded leaders focus on the holes. You can gain a competitive advantage by dwelling in these holes as a between-group broker where you'll have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations, which leads to good ideas and information that be used to advance your own work or invested back into your network.

Flock with birds of other feathers.

In the fast-paced world of education reform, it's easy to migrate to people with similar backgrounds, skills, knowledge, and beliefs - a phenomenon known as homophily.  And while these relationships can be helpful in pushing knowledge and skill deeper in a certain domain, relationships with people with differing perspectives, life experiences, academic degrees, and approaches to problem solving provide leaders with a broad range of information and resources from which to draw. In the Education Pioneers Graduate Summer Fellowship we regularly see the benefits that come when we convene our incredibly diverse cohorts.  Fellows are all assigned to small groups that reflect the diversity of the larger group in terms of advanced degree type, professional experience, race and ethnicity, ideology and life experience. Our talented leaders who have excelled in homopholous groups are pushed to their learning edge when negotiating different, but equally valuable ways of thinking.


Join the Conversation

Commenting Policy

Education Pioneers does not discriminate against any views but reserves the right to remove or not post comments that are off-topic or contain obscene language, threats, or defamatory statements.